Like many leaders, George Bush relied on trusted advisors like Karl Rove for advice and strategy. How can a leader draw the line between receiving good advice and being overly influenced by a strong advisor?
Today's presidential advisors are counted on for much more than sound advice. From acting as White House media surrogates to providing the political and policy expertise required to navigate what is often a hostile atmosphere both inside the Beltway and beyond it, today's advisors do it all. All the while, they are expected to remain on message and loyal to the end. As a result, dissension within a president's inner circle is rapidly being relegated to annals of American history.
Gone are the days of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, which was purposefully structured to encourage insightful debate by recruiting powerful voices from opposing ideologies. Presidents may attempt such diversity, but breaks in the ranks don't remain behind closed doors for long and are quickly seized upon by opponents as signs of weakness.
When public disputes do arise, the advisor (or, in some cases, cabinet secretary) on the short end of the stick often doesn't stick around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for long.
So, increasingly, the problem isn't that one dominant advisor drowns out the others. It's that the conditions do not exist for vigorous debate when it comes to major policy or political decisions. There may be debate about which tactics or strategies are best to achieve the White House's goals - but when it comes to setting an administration's agenda, advisors are too often in lock step (or at least perceived that way).
This unified front established by both Republican and Democratic White Houses in recent years leaves supposedly dominant advisors open to undue criticism. Like Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel, they become the faces of the West Wing for the simple reason that the public never sees them challenged by colleagues or bosses - and in a hyper-partisan environment such as ours, an attack on someone perceived to be in the ear of the president is often just as good as an attack on the president himself.
While it is important that the president surround him or herself with as many diverse viewpoints as possible, it becomes more difficult given the potential destruction of the person's reputation for providing such advice especially if they disagree or are seen as overly influential. Hence, most debates happen behind closed doors - having the advantage of receiving full information and differing opinions - but reducing the public trust in the decision-making process.
To be effective, presidents must cultivate a group of strong advisors willing to subject themselves to such public scrutiny as well as stand by them when they are demonized in the press. Otherwise there will be few voices willing to be heard, and our country will lack the vigorous debate that shapes our policy and serves as a cornerstone of our democracy.
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